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When I was in Bulgaria, learning their exquisite songs, I would fill my eyes and mind with the rich colours and patterns of the regional costumes, and I would feel both attracted and dissociated. How could a chujdenka (foreigner) even imagine wearing garments so full of story and nuance, so full of regional roots and affiliation. So, I let it be for them.

Then one day, a woman asked to meet me for coffee. To give me her baba’s saya (grandmother’s costume). Say again?

I sat across the little table, listening to the family stories and their wider political implications, feeling that the simple paper bag lying there, between our cups, held some kind of bomb or treasure, like a home-fire, like a message from another place, like a leaping and joining of hands between generations, cultures and languages.

This costume had been made by hand, for a life time of wearing, and for generations to come. Now it was leaving the family fold to follow the thread of song…. A chujdenka had come, with her passions and admirations, with her devoted study and shortcomings, and had started to carry old song in a new way. The costume came into the picture like armour, like a blessing, like a cheeky, irreverent door into the yes-ness of transmission. See it for yourself!

Stanislavka Barbutska (1915-1997). Here at the age of 30, and mother of three, pictured with her husband, parents and siblings, wearing the saya (costume) that she made with wool from her own sheep, and cotton from her own yards. Raised in Egalnitsa, a small village 35km North-East of Kyustendil, Stanislavka was the 2nd of 4 children to survive – born to Kostadinka and Simeon.

In this picture (1945), Simeon, her father, has just had his factory nationalised, and communism will begin to separate people from their gardens, and songs from daily life. The greatest choirs on earth will be created – with singers from all around the country – and will make Bulgarian Folk Song famous around the world, but at a cost. Many will lose touch with the practice of song in their own lives, in sedyanki (working bees) and harvest, and it will be relegated to the stage for, albeit stunning, demonstration by professional ensembles. Photo courtesy of Slavka Kukova.

Stanislavka wanted her granddaughter to be free from the power of men, and encouraged her to become a lawyer. Still, the memory of fertile summers in the countryside were strong for a child otherwise raised in the town of Plovdiv.

Slavka gifted me her grandmother’s saya in 2016, after discovering the music of my trio Acapollinations and feeling it that was something novel, yet honouring of the energy and lineage of Bulgarian Folk Song.

It was 6 years before I found an appropriate occasion to perform wearing it. Here singing the slow song “Gyuro Dobwr Yunak” from Trakiya (taught to me by Svetla Stanilova in Plovdiv) at “The 2nd United Concert of Bulgarian Folk Groups of Australia & New Zealand” in Melbourne, 2022. Photo by Radost Ratcheva.
The traditional technique of swrma – the fine, golden embroidery on the shoulders – is a lost art, and modern replicas pale in comparison. The strength and energy of this costume is testament to its slow, hand-made nature and integrated function – where songs were literally sewn into the costume, over the long winter sedyanki (working bees). Photo by Radost Ratcheva.

It is an honour to take care of this saya, currently in Aotearoa/NZ – so far from its land of origin, but hopefully close to its original intent – that of reverence and the celebration of life’s beauty through collective dances and vibrant song.